For most freelancers, being known for one skill is enough. Especially, as this week’s Featured Freelancer notes, freelancers are also all their own head of Marketing, Admin, Finance, etc. So how does Warwickshire-based Michelle Abrahall manage to juggle all of this along with the 3 primary business services she provides? Hard work and more, of course. This is the story of Michelle’s freelancing journey so far…
What is your name and what do you do?
My name’s Michelle Abrahall, and I’m a Graphic Designer, Illustrator and Copywriter. A ‘triple threat’ as they would say in showbiz!
How long have you been freelancing and why did you decide to become a freelancer?
I’ve been freelancing for about five years, full-time for the last two, so it’s only recently that I’ve felt like a proper freelancer. I just had a moment in my early thirties of ‘what am I waiting for’ and it suddenly clicked that if I didn’t give self-employment a try now, when would I? Like most decisions in life, there’s never a perfect time, so you might as well go for it!
The other major factor in going freelance was finally admitting to myself that, since graduating from an Illustration BA, none of my jobs had really stretched me creatively. It’s a hard thing to admit that you’ve essentially been coasting for 10 years, but it gave me the push I needed.
What support did you have from family and friends? Did anyone advise you against becoming freelance?
My Dad had lots of experience working as a self-employed Architect, so although he knew the potential pitfalls, he never tried to talk me out of it. Both my parents have an incredible work ethic and I remember Dad working on most Saturday mornings, so I had an idea of what it took to make it work.
Whenever I was stressing about my career choices, my Mum always said to me ‘you’re just a late bloomer’ which made me feel like it was ok not to have everything figured out in my twenties! My Dad always said, ‘even the longest journey starts with a single step’, which is so true!
My sister has been great too – I’m constantly sending her text updates on my month-end figures or if I’ve smashed a target, and she’s never anything but encouraging. Friends have also been amazing – they all encouraged me to go for it and they always like and share my social media updates (which is so important for getting good post reach). Most of them have expressed jealously at my self-employed/working from home set up!
Did you use any professional support resources in starting your freelance business?
When I was first considering freelancing, I had an appointment with a government-funded agency (I think it was Business Link, not sure if they still exist) and they helped me to realise that what I was planning to set up was a bona-fide business, and I had to treat it as such. It sounds obvious but I’ve known some creative people that treated freelancing as a hobby that happens to pay the bills, so it was useful to have advice from the beginning to take it seriously.
While I was making plans to quit my job, I had sessions with a business coach. This was invaluable as my head was all over the place at the time, and she helped me set achievable goals, and to be more methodical about what I needed to get done before I went solo. It also helped with some of the emotional side too; the perceived guilt of ‘letting down’ my employer, the feeling that I was taking a huge risk by giving up a regular salary, etc. I’m a big advocate of coaching now and would recommend it to anyone.
How would you describe your clients or customers?
I honestly don’t think I have a typical client as I work directly with business owners, through marketing agencies and with individuals for private commissions. I may be going against the advice of ‘you need to have a perfect client in mind’ but I don’t like to rule anybody out! Variety and working on unexpected projects are two of the best things about freelancing.
Why do your clients/customers select you over your competitors?
Now I’m in my second year of freelancing, the majority of enquiries come from referrals. People recommend me because they enjoy working with me, which is backed up by the fact most of my clients are regulars. With the very visual nature of my work, a lot of it also comes down to personal taste – if someone likes my style, they’ll know I’m the only one that can do it!
Is being a freelancer what you expected? Do you work more hours (or less) than you had first anticipated?
Such a tough question! I think the beauty of freelancing is, you’re in charge of your working life, and you make the rules. I made a conscious decision to prioritize a good work/life balance from the beginning, otherwise what’s the point of being your own boss? I knew I didn’t want to be chained to a desk from 8am to 6pm, so I did the sums and figured out that I didn’t need to work all hours to be financially comfortable. It’s a personal choice and everyone’s different, but for me it was never about earning big bucks.
What app or website could you not run your business without, and why?
I absolutely could not do my job without the Adobe Creative Suite (Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign) of programmes. I also use Asana as a basic CRM and to remind me of long-term and regular tasks. Excel spreadsheets are always in use to track billable hours and finances (basic I know, but it works for me!). Otherwise it’s good old pad and paper, and whiteboard sheets (if you don’t know what these are, look them up. Most useful thing ever for the home office!)
What advice would you give to anyone who wants to start a freelance business, specifically in your field?
Start by building up your portfolio, possibly by doing work for friends and family at reduced rates. No-one will want to work with you if you can’t show examples of what you can do! Collect client testimonials as soon as you can and display them prominently on your website and share on social media. Finally, network, network, network!
What are the most notable things you have learnt since starting your business; either about running a business or about yourself?
I’m surprised by how interested I am in the financial and business side – I’ve become a right geek about tracking KPIs and setting myself targets! To be totally honest, I’ve also been surprised by how some days it does just feel like hard work, and on those days I have to remind myself how lucky I am to be my own boss, and get over it!
What is it about being a freelancer that you most enjoy?
The variety, the freedom, the opportunity to really push myself out of my comfort zone and reach my potential. You are only limited by your ambition.
What do you enjoy the least about being a freelancer?
Juggling clients can be tough. Having to wear so many business hats (admin, business development, finance, marketing), and the constant decision making!
What is your ultimate professional goal as a freelancer?
I’m actually in the process of realising one of my goals right now – launching a range of illustrated giftware (bags, notebooks, pocket mirrors etc.). I was talked out of it in the beginning of my freelancing career but now feels like the right time to focus on it. Watch this space!
What one thing do you wish you had known before you became a freelancer?
That you are totally the master of your own destiny, and that can be both a good and bad thing.
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